Brussels, 20 February 2014
Environment: Commission takes action against UK for persistent air pollution problems
The Commission has launched legal proceedings against the UK for its failure to cut excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas. Nitrogen dioxide is the main pre-cursor for ground-level ozone causing major respiratory problems and leading to premature death. City-dwellers are particularly exposed, as most nitrogen dioxide originates in traffic fumes. European legislation sets limits on air pollution and the NOx limits should have been achieved by 1 January 2010 unless an extension was granted until 1 January 2015.
The UK Supreme Court has already declared that air pollution limits are regularly exceeded in 16 zones across the UK. The areas affected are Greater London, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Teesside, the Potteries, Hull, Southampton, Glasgow, the East, the South East, the East Midlands, Merseyside, Yorkshire & Humberside, the West Midlands, and the North East. The Court also noted that air quality improvement plans estimate that for London compliance with EU standards will only be achieved by 2025, fifteen years after the original deadline, and in 2020 for the other 15 zones.
EU legislation contains flexibility as regards the deadlines for returning air pollution to safe levels. Although the original deadline for meeting the limit values was 1 January 2010, extensions have been agreed with Member States which had a credible and workable plan for meeting air quality standards within five years of the original deadline, i.e. by January 2015. The UK has not presented any such plan for the zones in question.
The Commission is therefore of the opinion that the UK is in breach of its obligations under the Directive, and a letter of formal notice has been sent. The UK has two months to respond.
Under EU law (the Directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air in Europe) Member States agreed to ensure compliance with hourly and annual limit values for nitrogen dioxide by 1 January 2010. Member States may ask for a postponement (of up to 5 years) of this deadline. Where a Member State finds itself in a breach of these limit values it is obliged to draw up an air quality improvement plan for the zone in question, setting out appropriate measures to keep the exceedance period as short as possible.
Nitrogen oxides like NO2 are emitted by road vehicles, shipping, power generation, industry and households. They are a key component in increased levels of ground-level ozone, which is very harmful to human health. They cause acid rain, damaging plant and animal life in forests, lakes and rivers, and harming buildings and historical sites. They can also cause eutrophication, when an excess of nutrients such as nitrogen oxides and ammonia threatens biodiversity through the excessive growth of plants like algae.
Other parts of Europe also have problems with ambient air quality, and the Commission is currently taking action against 17 States in which there are serious air quality problems. To date, however, these other actions have concerned high levels of fine dust (PM10), as PM10 deadlines were to be met before the final deadlines for NO2.
For more information:
For details of European air quality legislation:
The time extension website:
On the February infringement package decisions, see MEMO/14/116
On the general infringement procedure, see MEMO/12/12
For more information on infringement procedures:
For current statistics on infringements in general, see: